Sunday, May 4, 2014

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak


The Russian revolution tears a man’s life apart.

Yuri Zhivago is a child of turn-of-the-century Moscow bourgeois society. An orphan, he marries loyal Tonia, the daughter of his rich foster father. As a teenager,Yuri briefly encountered the beautiful troubled Lara, embroiled in conflicts with the older man who has ruined her virtue. Meanwhile, Russia is cracking under the weight of oppression. Years of terrible civil war rip the old world apart, and lead to violence and starvation across all social classes. The servants' children end on top and rich men’s children end on the bottom. That still doesn’t deter people from taking enjoyment in life. Yuri works at hospitals but then is dragooned into serving as a doctor for a Red Army unit hiding in the forest. He escapes and reunites with Lara for a short time in a wintry country house before he lives out the remainder of his shattered life.

The strengths of this book include an easily digestible history lesson about the Russian Civil War, numerous wonderfully poetic descriptions of snow and the taiga, the great Siberian forest, and a glimpse into the heads of people undergoing severe civil pressure. I liked how the characters remained the same and were still able to have fun, even as society fractured all around them. Dr. Zhivago definitely harkens back to War and Peace (although I think this book puts the lie to Tolstoy’s singing dancing peasants). The first third of the book is a chronicle of a society torn apart, starting with Cossacks whipping old ladies on the ass. Many scenes depict intelligent kind people being held hostage by homicidal morons, and make it apparent why the Soviets would feel nervous about publicizing this book. Lara has a compelling speech when she said that murder used to be something only seen on a stage or in a novel and now it is commonplace. The final part of the book is a love story. Yuri is torn between his love for his family, his self sacrificing wife, and his love for Lara.

At times Lara and Yuri feel that they must cherish not only their personal happiness but whatever they can remember of western civilization. They pity the children who know no other life. The horror at the end is concisely depicted.  The book is sort of uneven, a mishmash; the plotting is terrible, though perhaps that randomness corresponds to real life. In the middle of the Siberian tundra, Yuri keeps running into helpful characters from the old Moscow neighborhood. The Nazi invasion comes as a relief from the tyranny of suffocating totalitarianism. Marxian economic analysis may have some value but the forced implementation of a Marxist economy has been a disaster.

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